Orange County residents are about to see something that hasn’t happened in nearly 50 years.
Starting in January, Democrats will have a majority on the powerful county Board of Supervisors – which decides nearly $9 billion in annual spending on local regional services like law enforcement, public health, social services and myriad other priorities like libraries.
Republican Supervisor Lisa Barlett will be leaving due to term limits, while Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento – a Democrat – will be joining the board after winning election in central OC.
That means Democrats will have three of the board’s five seats – a controlling majority for most of the board’s decisions.
But the reality is more complicated.
One of the three Democrats – Supervisor Doug Chaffeee – is a moderate who often sides with his Republican colleagues on key issues, and was opposed by his own party in this year’s election.
He’s considered the most likely swing vote that could decide controversial votes.
“The fact that we have a Democratic majority on the board symbolically is a big deal, because this hasn’t been the case for generations,” said Mike Moodian, a public policy professor at Chapman University.
“But it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see drastic changes in priorities or policy.”
“The reality is, Doug Chaffee is a moderate. So it’s not going to go too far too fast for a purple county,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College.
The county board likely is “moving from center right to center left,” in line with overall voting trends in OC, Balma said.
Chaffee didn’t return messages for comment.
Some, like Republican Supervisor Don Wagner, don’t foresee much difference in how the board will operate.
“I’m uncertain that there will be many or any significant changes” with the new board, Wagner told Voice of OC.
“The board is unanimous on most items and rarely contentious even when we disagree. We all know Vince from OCTA. I think he will hit the ground running and be a fine colleague.”
Others see the possibility the board will take a different approach to issues like equity, public employee compensation, transparency, and funding from Sacramento.
In an interview this week, Sarmiento said he plans to bring “more discussion about people in Central County who haven’t received their proportionate share of services – whether they be healthcare, homelessness, or safe neighborhoods.”
A longtime complaint of Sarmiento’s has been how Santa Ana hosts a disproportionate amount of homelessness and treatment services in OC.
Part of his focus as a supervisor, he said, would be “making sure all 34 cities are responsible for providing support for regional issues, and not shouldering one city more than others.”
He’s also promising to push for more transparency about the board’s actions.
“I’m going to try to also ensure that decisions are made as openly as possible, and in a way that the public will have an opportunity to scrutinize our decisions, and will have a chance to understand where these decisions are coming from,” he said.
“Sole-source contracts, decisions being made outside of the public purview, are things that I’m going to adamantly oppose.”
Moodian noted much of the county’s budget process plays out behind closed doors.
“Are we going to perhaps see a press for more transparency and public involvement…or are we going to see things continue behind closed doors?” Moodian asked.
“What the public is really expecting is for their representatives to be accessible,” Balma said.
Sarmiento also said he’s interested in seeing the county add a civilian oversight commission over the Sheriff’s Department, like he and other Santa Ana council members just voted to do over the city’s Police Department.
Such a commission, he said, could provide accountability over “not just the problems with informants, but also with excessive force violations” at the Sheriff’s Department.
While county supervisors have set up an Office of Independent Review, it hasn’t developed much of a public profile and only issued one public report in many years since being formed.
When it comes to bringing state funding to OC, past board majorities have clashed with Sacramento and not applied for OC’s proportionate share of state grant money.
There’s now a possibility for the board majority to have “a better relationship with the majority in Sacramento to get more funding for Orange County,” said Balma.
One of those areas is the property tax shortchange issue, where the county loses out on hundreds of millions of dollars per year, because the state’s distribution formulas are based on 1970s population levels that Sacramento hasn’t re-adjusted.
Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat, said she anticipates a change in how the new majority handles employee compensation at the county.
”Making sure we’re paying attention to the cost of living here in Orange County and adjusting our packages accordingly,” said Foley, who was elected with major support from the unions representing county employees.
That would be a major shift from the past, when the board majority had “very very tense negotiations” with unions, Moodian said.
Foley, who will be representing coastal south OC starting in January due to redistricting, said she’ll be putting particular emphasis on bringing in state and federal money to shore up coastal infrastructure that’s getting hammered by climate change.
“We’ve got to have a consistent plan for regular coastal sand replenishment,” she said, adding OC should be getting the kinds of hundreds of millions in state funding that San Diego County got for coastal railroad track improvements.
“Our coastal economy is really reliant on the beaches being open,” said Foley.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.